Commissioner’s Choice Award: Lesley Shipley, Randolph College – Contemporary Art Reactions

This is Best of Week on The Academic Minute:  For the Commissioner’s Choice Award: Lesley Shipley, assistant professor of art history at Randolph College, detailed how we react to art.

My research and teaching interests are in modern and contemporary art, with an emphasis on identity, feminism, activism, and abstraction in art since 1960. Currently, I am completing an article that examines the intersection of ethics and aesthetics in two installations by the contemporary Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. I’m also finalizing a paper on a series of reliefs by the American artist Lee Bontecou. I have presented my research at the Feminist Art History Conference, the Annual Conference of the College Art Association, the Asians in the Americas Conference, and the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference in Norwich, England.

At Randolph, I teach 19th-century European Art, Modern European Art, American Art and Architecture, and the second half of the survey of Western Art. Special topics that I plan to teach include “Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Art”, “Art and Activism since 1960,” and “African American Art from Colonialism to the Present”.

I try to make the course material relevant to students and encourage them to develop their own perspectives on the subjects we investigate together. My approach to teaching stems from my belief in the power of students’ voices to co-construct the learning experience within the college classroom. This commitment to integrating student voice in the classroom closely aligns with my scholarly interests in issues of identity. I also have a graduate degree in fine arts and this training has furthered my commitment to keeping the work of art central to the study of art history. All of my courses take advantage of the resources at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. The Maier’s outstanding collection and exhibitions make Randolph College an exceptional institution at which to study (and to teach!) the history of art.

When students complete my courses, I hope they are more confident in their abilities to ask important questions that are meaningful to them, to think and read critically and carefully, and to listen and look with a more open mind than when they arrived. These skills are relevant to all of the disciplines that they encounter in a liberal arts education and support a life-long love of learning. When I’m not teaching or writing, I enjoy painting and drawing, running, reading the New Yorker and cookbooks, traveling, and spending time with my family.

Contemporary Art Reactions


How can artists contribute to public discourse?

I am interested in how the art of our time often asks us to sit with ambiguity and vulnerability.  While civil conversation among opposing groups sometimes feels impossible, contemporary artists use their work to create spaces for their viewers to engage with challenging topics without requiring them to take sides right away or immediately respond to questions posed.

A powerful example of an artistic encounter with vulnerability occurred at the opening of the 2017 Whitney biennial, when the African American artist Parker Bright performed an act of protest in front of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016). Schutz, who is white, had based her painting on a photograph of the mutilated body of the fourteen year-old African American boy Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955. In a series of peaceful actions within the gallery, Bright sought to challenge what he perceived to be the appropriation of Black trauma in Schutz’s painting. Standing approximately four feet in front of Open Casket with his back to the audience and wearing a shirt that read “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE,” Bright activated the museum environment by partially obstructing the viewer’s gaze with his own living body. He then turned to talk with museum visitors about the painting and their responses to it. 

Through Bright’s intervention, the art museum was transformed from a place for aesthetic contemplation to a space where vulnerability, resistance, and public dialogue could coexist.  While contemporary art may not transform public policy overnight, it can make room for challenging conversations to occur within the public sphere.